<
>

Racing lifers a fading breed as sport loses its luster

Jerome and Evelyn Weiner have been coming to the track in Philadelphia for more than 50 years, but fewer and fewer people are joining them. Dana O'Neil/ESPN

BENSALEM, Pa. - It was raining -- pouring, actually -- but it was Jerome Weiner's one day off from the pharmacy. So when his brother-in-law called with extra tickets for the Garden State Park matinee, Jerome and his wife, Evelyn, decided to go.

He slipped on his sport coat while Evelyn did herself up in a fancy dress, heels, and a pair of stockings. They enjoyed a light lunch in the clubhouse before making their first bet. Evelyn went with a horse named Scarlet Ribbons, choosing him because she loved the song of the same name sung by Harry Belafonte.

That was in 1957.

Fifty-eight years later, Evelyn and Jerome are perched at a hightop table in front of a television at Parx (formerly Philadelphia Park) Racetrack, each with their own copy of The Daily Racing Form spread before them.

He's dressed casually in a blue jacket and T-shirt; his wife of 62 years is still stylish in a blue velour top and dangly earrings. They come here three times a week -- Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday -- eat lunch just as they did in 1957, and, if they get lucky, pick another winner like they did with Scarlet Ribbons in 1957.

But this is nothing like it was. Is this what it is like to watch a sport die?

Take a tour through Jerome and Evelyn's memories and you can almost see horse racing fade away.

From dressed-up outings on the Jersey Circuit, to weekends spent at the Saratoga meet; from watching the great horse Kelso win his first race at Atlantic City, to watching Secretariat's historical win on television, to watching Charismatic's heartbreaking Triple Crown finish in person at Belmont Park; from horse racing's heyday, with packed stands filled with fancy folks, to this place, a once-vibrant track where, on a dreary June afternoon, the poker room is stuffed to overflowing, but only a few regulars get ready for the day's first race.

"Oh, I miss how it was,'' said the 80-year-old Evelyn. "You'd get there early to make sure you got a seat, put the newspaper on your seat. Everyone was all dressed up. I would never wear jeans and sneaks. It was a day out. It's not the same. It's not. It's not special anymore.''

On Saturday, American Pharoah will try to win the first Triple Crown in 37 years, the 14th horse to attempt to break the jinx.

So what if he does it? Most everyone associated with horse racing agrees that nothing will really change. A Triple Crown winner will provide a momentary bump to the sport. But after Saturday, the casual fan won't pay attention again for 11 months, until the first Saturday of next May at the Kentucky Derby -- long after American Pharoah has been retired to stud.

Tens of thousands of words have been written to explain what killed horse racing over the last 40 years.

Maybe the better question is, what have we lost?

What's missing?

Mark Reid knows exactly what we're missing. The longtime trainer based at Parx has seen it, almost as if he's been granted a chance to peer through the looking glass.

A few years ago, he took some of his horses to Europe, traversing through different countries for various four-day meets.

"You'd walk into a pub and someone would yell, 'Hey, are you the Yank who thinks he's going to kick our butt?'" Reid said. "Anybody who was anybody was settling in these towns. It was an event.''

At its best, in its heyday, that's what the sport was -- an event, a spectacle, a pageant. We have events now -- the Super Bowl, the Indianapolis 500 -- but pageants? Spectacles? It's hard to see the pageantry beneath the corporate sponsorships.

Horse racing still has its three days of glory on the first Saturday in May in Louisville, the third Saturday in May in Baltimore, and three weeks later, on Long Island. For the more committed, there is also Saratoga, a summer meet once described aptly by the legendary Red Smith: "You drive north (from New York City) for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years.''

But too many days are now too ordinary. The numbers -- of races, tracks, and days on the racing calendar -- has diluted the product. A Tuesday at Parx looked more like a senior citizen's convention than a pageant.

"I go to the Triple Crown races, even though I hate it with the mob scene,'' Reid said. "But it's such a trip, with the outrageous outfits and the famous people. You have to promote that pageantry, not so much what's happening at Aqueduct in the winter where you've got a few hardcore guys bundled up watching the races and then running back into the bar. We need to get back to where we once were. We need to change our image.''

Patience required, unfortunately

People still write Penny Chenery, or stop to tell her where they were on June 9, 1973, that magical day when the horse she owned, Secretariat, destroyed the Belmont field to claim the Triple Crown. For a generation of sports fans, it was their seminal moment.

Now 93, Chenery remembers it vividly -- the days before when she did so many interviews she felt like she ran out of words, and the day of the race, when the noise of the crowd practically swallowed her up as Secretariat sprinted for home at Belmont Park.

"The fans were ecstatic and the sense of euphoria,'' Chenery said. "The Belmont, I'd say, was a thrill of a lifetime.''

Experienced live, horse racing can still offer a similar thrill, albeit with a smaller crowd. It is sensory overload -- the majestic animals, the colors of the silks, the yelling and cajoling from bettors as horses round the corner for home, the joy in winning, the disappointment in losing. It's the same dance at virtually every track in the country.

"Almost every person I've taken to the track has loved it,'' longtime horse racing writer Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Daily News said. "It's a really fun day. But the problem is, hardly anybody goes anymore.''

What once made horse racing so special is what made it different, and what made it different is now causing its slow death. It requires the most scarce of virtues: patience.

People who try to define just how popular Secretariat once was often reference how the great horse was on the cover of three magazines in one week. What they fail to realize is that more than the magnetism of the horse, that defining measure of stature speaks to just how long ago the bygone days were.

Magazines? No one counts magazine covers as proof of arrival anymore. Today's Q scores are measured in Twitter followers and viral videos (Big Red would presumably do alright there, given that a YouTube video of his Crown-clinching win counts 1.5 million views).

Information comes via 140-character tweets and seven-second Vine videos that are processed, decompressed, shared and forgotten in a never-ending need to fill the bottomless pit of instant gratification.

There is very little instant gratification in horse racing. It takes work and it takes time, and both are lost commodities.

"When you went to a horse race, it was a whole day. You studied and you worked and you came home fried,'' Reid said. "Modern man doesn't go for that. You can pull a slot machine lever 1,000 times between races. Horse racing, with all of its pageantry, it moves too slow.''

Once, of course, such a slow pace was welcomed. A day off was meant to be just that, a whole day off, not just a three-hour respite or a business meeting courtside at a basketball game. Horse racing, with its day-long card, offered leisure time and, even better, time to communicate and commiserate.

The community of horse racing might be a little rough around the edges, but there is a sense of community. The regulars who gathered at Parx recently called out to one another by name, sharing tips on hot trainers on the elevator or while poring over the Daily Racing Form and enjoying the pour of a beer.

"We got to know so many people,'' Evelyn Weiner said, launching into a tale from Afleet Alex's run at Belmont Park.

The couple befriended a man in the seats in front of them, a CEO from New York who enjoyed a few drinks leading up to the big race. The Weiners, who grew up in Philadelphia, were friends with Alex's owner Chuck Zacney, and told their new friend to bet the horse, with Evelyn cautioning that she was only a $2 bettor and he should be conservative.

"Well, by the time the race went off, he was so inebriated he said, 'Jerome, you're going to have to tell me what's happening because I can't see the horse,''' Jerome remembered. "So I called the race for him. When it was over and he won, I looked at his tickets. He had 10 $100 tickets on the horse to win, and he says, 'Now I can go home. I finally broke even.'''

Gambling competition

"Hey, Vladimir,'' Bob DePaul yells as someone passes by the ticket counter.

For 40 years, DePaul has been a pari-mutuel clerk at various tracks around the Northeast. Right now, he's been taking bets at Parx, working every Friday through Tuesday, including a double shift on the weekends. Like Evelyn and Jerome, he remembers the glory days -- with 20,000 people at the Meadowlands, jammed tracks virtually every weekend -- and has a hard time witnessing the sport's decline.

"It's hard, really hard,'' he said. "I hate to see it. It's a beautiful game.''

At least in Pennsylvania, the beautiful game has been resuscitated. In 2004, then governor Ed Rendell signed the slots bill into law, and since then casinos and racetracks have had a symbiotic, if not always copacetic, relationship. The thriving Parx Casino, just a few steps away from the racetrack, helps fund the purses for horse racing, which in turn keeps the races relevant.

Gambling is, of course, the lifeblood of horse racing. The sport's popularity grew because for decades it was the only thing you could bet on outside of Nevada. Now, you can bet on who will win the Super Bowl coin toss, play table games across the country, and even make bets from the comfort of your living room.

"The pie has gotten bigger,'' Jerardi said. "But not horse racing's piece.''

To bet on a horse race, or at least to do it intelligently, takes research. The Daily Racing Form includes everything a person wants to know about a race, so long as he or she can decipher it.

To the untrained eye, it looks like it is written in code, a mishmash of numbers and abbreviations. To an experienced bettor, it is a treasure trove of information that details a horse's past performance, speed and workouts, as well as how his trainer has performed.

Alas, reading a racing form has gone the way of scoring a baseball game and is a lost art.

Yet, that's what makes horse racing so unique. It's more of a calculated risk than a wild one, and while the payoff on a lottery ticket or the pull of a slot machine lever might be the same, the action is not. Those things are wildly less intellectual and, more importantly, less personal. To bet on a horse is to own it for two minutes, to go stride for stride from starting gate to finish line as a vicarious participant.

Before online betting and off-track betting centers took horse racing to a cloistered indoors similar to casino gambling, it was a live event, played outdoors with all the nuances that Mother Nature offers.

"People would rather sit in a casino all day, I guess,'' DePaul said. "It's a lot less work, but it can't be as much fun.''

No more horse heroes

Bob Baffert remembers going to watch Cigar when the legendary horse was at DelMar.

"I was like a little kid. I just wanted to get a close up of him, I guess,'' the trainer said.

The same is true of his horse now. Curious fans and onlookers came to Churchill Downs before American Pharoah was shipped out to New York, wanting a look at the horse that could be "the one."

But American Pharoah will never be able to engender the same sort of following Cigar did, with his legacy built on the 16 consecutive races he won. American Pharoah won't last that long. Baffert has said the horse will be retired by the end of this season.

We don't have horse heroes any more. If anything, race horses are more like college basketball players, in that the good ones don't stick around very long.

We used to, though.

Triple Crown winner War Admiral put his pedigree to the test, taking on the everyman horse, Seabiscuit, in a match race.

To win his Triple Crown, Secretariat three times had to outlast Sham; in 1978, Affirmed and Alydar's rivalry in the Crown races captivated fans.

That same year, Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, raced Affirmed after his Triple Crown days.

A year later, Affirmed paid it forward, taking on Spectacular Bid, the champion whose own Triple Crown try was cut short when he stepped on a pin the day of the Belmont.

Saturday will be American Pharoah versus who, exactly? He edged out Firing Line in the Derby and then stomped Tale of Verve, who didn't race in Louisville, in the Preakness. Now comes a Belmont with a field of horses who all dodged at least one leg of the Triple Crown.

Look at some of the most recent Triple Crown losers: California Chrome, beaten at last year's Belmont by Tonalist, a horse that hadn't competed since May 10; Smarty Jones, chased down by Birdstone, a 36-1 longshot who hadn't competed in the Preakness and wasn't a factor at the Derby; and Funny Cide, beaten on the last leg by Emblem Maker, a horse that skipped the Preakness.

We've lost the great rivalries, which as much as the fancy clothes and even the allure of a winning bet, were at the heart of the horse racing spectacles. Committed horse racing fans can appreciate the horses on an undercard turf race; the common man wraps his arms around greatness versus greatness.

"We were coming out of California and Alydar was training in Florida,'' said Patrice Wolfson, who owned Affirmed. "It was just a great battle between the two of them. That's where the real interest was, a great rivalry that went right to the Belmont and beyond.''

Hardcore fans alone

The first race at Parx is nearing now, about 30 minutes away. Evelyn Weiner, who won that very first race in 1957 by choosing a horse named after a song she favored, has become a student of horse racing. She's taken seminars and studies the racing form, interrupting herself mid-sentence during an interview, in fact, to remind her husband to get the scratches.

She has a pick for the Belmont Stakes -- it's not American Pharoah -- but doesn't want to share it.

"I don't want everyone betting it down,'' she said.

On Saturday, she expects more people crowded around the tables to watch the big race and figures it will be back to the regulars again on Sunday. That's not being a pessimist. Just a realist.

Asked why she and her husband still come three days a week, even though horse racing isn't what it once was, Evelyn shrugs.

"We still love it. It's still a fun way to pass the day,'' she said. "I wish other people knew what it was like.''

Sadly, they probably never will.